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Faith is a very funny, fickle topic for me. It’s one I don’t easily wander into discussions about with most folks I know or try to toss out at parties as conversation starters, but it’s one I find myself questioning and musing on even when I don’t spend a majority of my life really bringing it into my conscious thought and daily conversations. If someone asked me to describe what my faith were to look like as a manifestation of the physical world, I’d probably describe it as an older, worn book in the corner of an empty attic – a book wrapped in a thick, hardcover binding with slightly yellowed pages; the pages are intact and solid to the touch, but the edges are a bit frayed and clearly time has not been as kind to this journal as it could have been.
The first many pages are filled with overflowing thoughts and writings that repeat themselves quite a bit and it continues until about a quarter of the way through when it starts becoming less … confident. A question appears in the midst of the rambling but the words continue to flow on until another few questions trickle into the mix. And then it begins to noticeably trail off more and more frequently until you get to the end and find you’re left with just many blank pages waiting to be written on or destined to be a canvas never to be painted.
I personally know this book very well – it was something I held close to me in younger years and held onto tightly. However as years passed, my grip lessened and through a winding road of time, change and growth, I found myself putting the book down and wandering off. Occasionally I’ll run up to the attic and peer in to see if it’s still there where I thought it was and then just gently close the door and go back downstairs to leave the book in solitary silence. Or perhaps a conversation with a friend or stranger creates a brief wind that rustles the pages; I’ll hear the flutter of the paper and give a quick start. I’ll cautiously wander over to look it over again and touch the binding, slide my fingers over the pages and take a little time to read back through the pages and see where I left off only to leave the book behind again. Sometimes maybe a large storm or unexpected shift of the world I’m in shakes the whole house and the book will land with a crash on the floor, jarring me into the realization it still exists and maybe I might want to do something about the book – are there more words to write? More thoughts to express? New ideas to explore? Should I give it another re-read? I’m not really sure.
That’s a long winded and decorative (arguably overdecorated) way to express that for me, faith is a journey I’ve found myself not nearly where I would’ve expected myself to be. It certainly wasn’t where I started and I’m not necessarily sure where I’ll end up on the whole matter, but the one benefit of being lost – for lack of a better word – is that you don’t really have to know where you’re going or even where you’re going to be. That’s not an expectation of someone adrift on an unexpected journey who lost the markers they had marked on their map. You’re lost, plain and simple, and it’s not the panic-inducing kind of lost where you have to save yourself or be saved; it’s the surprising calm of knowing you are traversing things in the moment and have the benefit of at least knowing where you came from but also having infinite possibilities of where you might go.
I grew up in a very devout Christian household. I was raised in a city with German settler roots and having at least some family heritage to match, it’s less surprising I was raised in a Lutheran family. I went to church every Sunday and took my Sunday school classes. I was confirmed in my teens and did the dutiful things on the religious checklist of things to do as was expected. And in my youth, I adored this. I absorbed all the biblical stories with eager ears; the old testaments to the new, the pre-Jesus tales of morality and divinity, the exciting birth of Christ and the disciples that eventually followed him. I believed without question and memorized each name of every chapter. I sang hymns that I directed to the heavens and prayed fervently as one should.
I’m not really sure when I started to waver in my religious faith but something, somewhere shifted a little bit and I started to have some questions that I couldn’t quite answer with utmost certainty. I know that there were years of the usual teenage indifference and of course it was now booooring, I had cooler things to do, more interesting things to occupy my time with but even as I wound into my early adulthood years and began to circle back to getting into a community of faith, I began to think a bit more on not what I had learned to be true but what I felt to be true. And that was a perplexing, nagging feeling I couldn’t quite shake. I know there is a God and I know all the things I should believe in … but do I really feel that I believe it or is it what I feel I should believe?
I hadn’t tried to look far outside the realm of Christianity that I’d been raised with and so it was a complete shock to me when I took a world religions class in college and discovered there was so much more than what I’d been aware of. I think I took it as a mandatory elective, but between that, an astronomy class and a natural disasters class, I found myself enraptured in a world I never bothered to know existed. I learned about the faiths that came before the one I knew and the ones that came after. I learned the vast, complex world of different thoughts that people could have on one single point of thought: faith. I also learned about the planet we lived on and the endless space we live in.
And those things resonated with me in a way I couldn’t really describe other than it was a gut feeling, an instinctual connection. I’m basically romanticizing what any normal person learns in their normal lifetime but for me it was a big shift in thinking. Space was so endless and fascinating and the world itself so big and chaotic, always changing and shifting the balance of life within it. The rocks and plates that shift even as we speak to change the landscape of the ground we live on, the oceans that rise and fall to sculpt the earth that wraps around layers on layers of places we can’t even reach. The telescopes we peer through to find out what’s beyond our planet and our galaxy to find things we can’t even figure out in a single lifetime. It was all that fascinating knowledge that I began to stare straight into the mirror of myself and my faith and found questions that shook my religious beliefs at their very roots.
Who were we to declare how things were or were not? How could I live in these manmade absolutes when we’re infinitely tiny in a universe of things we don’t know or could even begin to explain? And with those thoughts and questions, it was like a door opened beneath me and no matter how I tried to turn away from these things and wrap a cloak of religious faith around me, they drew me to them like a moth to flame. Begged me to question even more, even if I couldn’t answer them and likely never would. It’s the vast world of possibilities and questions that I feel in my gut, that I see as I explore the world and meet people in it.
So now I find myself lacking the very faith I need to place my feet in shoes that walk any particularly religious path, although that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about the paths out there. I identify myself as agnostic or atheistic – and according to what I’ve dug into to better explore what I might or could believe, that’s probably the best description for me. In questioning the rules and tenets of what I’d grown up with, I guess I’ve also purposefully distanced myself from any particular nomenclature as the reaction of the people around you tends to make that difficult – plus it’s a bit restricting, even without the social factors. People tend to see what they want to see in labels. Call yourself a Christian or a Muslim or an Atheist or a Taoist and people will react as their context, knowledge, lack of knowledge and beliefs allow. I’m not about that, both for myself or towards others.
It’s funny now to know in a way I envy my friends and family that can, without a doubt, plunge themselves wholeheartedly into their religious faith. I’d love to have that ability because I just can’t shake myself of the questions and curiosities that cause me to keep wandering, peering in the windows of other beliefs and thoughts and then moving on to the next. And I don’t want my stance on things to stop others from sharing their faith, no matter what it is or isn’t, with me. The more I learn of what others believe, the more I am dared to explore my relation to those beliefs and ones I stumble on for myself.
Maybe the old book in the attic isn’t as blank as I think it is. Maybe the words and thoughts have just changed and the story is just one adventure I never anticipated in the black and white world I had growing up. All I know is I have questions that grab on to me and keep me wandering, wondering, listening, thinking, discovering and I’m grateful for where I came from and even more thrilled to be where I am.